Lively, funny and discreetly sentimental, “Hasee toh phasee” presents a special challenge to self-consciously hard-boiled American movie fans — and movie critics. This debut feature by Vinil Mathew, a director of stylish TV commercials, is simply too well made and too enjoyable to be reflexively dismissed by the watchdogs of cool. (The awkward official English title is “She Smiles, She’s Snared!”)
The film genres that we take seriously in the U.S., and that hip young film nerd directors win awards for “reinventing,” run more toward blood squibs and ingeniously florid profanity. Among the forms that need not apply are the zany and/or heart-tugging romantic comedy, complete with ill-advised engagements, red-faced angry relatives and last-minute sprints to the airport.
In Bollywood, though, the travails-of-love melodrama — with or without comedy, but always with upbeat musical numbers — is often seen as the template of the entire industry. It’s the form that filmmakers have to wrestle with if they hope to make smarter, more up-to-date commercial movies. “Hasee toh phasee” accomplishes this with a light touch and energy to burn. It makes the regeneration of an overweight and complacent commercial format look easy.
This particular “marriage plot” is one the oldest of earth: A guy meets the perfectly right woman just as he’s getting engaged to the obviously wrong one — obvious to everyone but him. Our restless young hero, Nikhil (Sidharth Malhotra), the model-handsome son of a tough cop, is drifting through life as some kind of vaguely defined “event planner.” His lovely fiancee, Karishma (Adah Sharma), is a shallow social climber. We can practically hear the thunderclap when Nikhil meets a woman so surprisingly unpredictable that he’s energized.
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Parineeti Chopra made a strong impression in last year’s “Shuddh Desi Romance,” a thematically adventurous film about young love and the terrors of marriage in which she played a more conventionally unconventional tomboy. Meera is a much more complicated character, a brainiac whose sharp tongue can barely to keep up with her cascading thought processes. Nikhil’s flabbergasted half-smile tells us that he, at least, has been snared. As in many of Hollywood’s classic romantic comedies, men and women are shown to have a good shot at happiness if they can keep each other entertained.
Introduced here as a manic pixie Punjabi dream girl, Meera reveals darker and even alarming traits as the story continues and a huge house in Delhi fills up with bickering family members. The nature of Meera’s undoubted strangeness becomes an object of suspense: Is she a mere eccentric, in a typical movie-fantasy way that’s more cute than troubling, or is she genuinely scary-crazy? Is she a thief and a drug addict, as some relatives charge? Chopra manages to make all these accusations seem plausible, even though we’re hoping fervently that they aren’t.
“Hasee toh phasee” doesn’t shy way from the darker undercurrents of family life. A couple of scenes in which young upstarts are viciously reprimanded are harsh enough to snap our heads back. These aren’t pretend movie slaps; they feel real. But so do many of the movie’s lighter moments, and the central love story itself. The characters are depicted with enough patience and in sufficient detail that we come to understand what they see in each other, and how the relationship could work.
That’s the most important accomplishment of this surprisingly good example of an often belittled story type: It takes plot points that in other hands have become hollow conventions, and brings them back to life, against all odds.